Historical Beijing

On Thursday, we visited the Shijia Hutong Museum, a site celebrating the culture and life of Old Beijing. Many of the city’s hutong—lanes or alleyways—date back to the Ming and Qing dynasties. They are composed of a series of traditional courtyard homes called siheyuan, which have for much of the city’s history have made up the vast majority of the urban fabric. (For example, in 1949, over 1.9 million residents coexisted in a city of largely one- or two-story buildings.)

After the Communists came to power, they began razing the city to accommodate Mao’s plans for urban industrialization, despite fierce opposition from planning experts, historians, and the famous architect Liang Sicheng. This is when Beijing lost its walls. However, many of the city’s traditional courtyards still survived the tumult of the Socialist era. It was actually the rapid construction of the go-go 1980s and 1990s that accelerated the destruction of Beijing’s architectural heritage, and to date, thousands of hutongs have been demolished.

[View of Shijia Hutong Museum Courtyard]

[View of Street Model]

See more pictures in our gallery of Shijia Hutong Museum after the jump.

What were once beautiful, meticulously-kept homes have fallen into disrepair, and the numbers of hutong neighborhoods are dwindling. The Shijia hutong is a restored courtyard home that once belonged to the Ling family. One of its most famous residents was Ling Shuhua, a painter and writer, and her husband Chen Xiying (Chen Yuan). In China in the early twentieth century, it was the literati—essayists, novelists, artists, poets—who were the country’s rockstars, and people eagerly followed their scholarly and personal lives, while celebrating their travels and exploits. The 1920s and 1930s are often deemed the “Golden Age of Intellectualism” as writing flourished, open debate took place in magazines and newspapers, and a sense of freedom and cultural evolution took hold as China broke from its strictly Confucian past to engage with the modern world.

Numerous other folks who would one day be famous passed through the hutong, including the intellectual Hu Shih, who took a government examination here. He received top marks, enabling him to study abroad, launching an illustrious career as scholar and statesman, eventually becoming Ambassador to the United States. Future presidents of Tsinghua University, Peking University, and many other renowned scholars’ paths intersected in this hutong lane as well.

[Photos of Hu Shih, Ling Shuhua, Chen Yuan, others]

The reconstructed courtyard museum sits on the actual site where Ling Shuhua and her family lived. One of her descendants is actually a Stanford alum who has written a book about the contrasting experiences of her grandmother and great aunt living in the worlds of East and West. On our visit, we were greeted by Matthew Hu, of the Prince’s Charities Foundation, which helped fund the restoration of the courtyard. Mr. Hu graciously led the students through the exhibits and discussed the history of Beijing, including this particular lane; the process of constructing the museum; and some of his thoughts on the future of hutong neighborhoods in China.

[Photo of Matthew Hu talking with students in courtyard]

In the afternoon, we visited one of the more touristic hutong areas around houhai (後海/后海) for a home-cooked meal and “cultural” activities. Houhai or “the back lakes” are surrounded by bar streets and restaurants, attracting throngs of recreating visitors out for a night on the town. The rebuilt hutongs here contrasted with this morning’s domestic, residential scene, presenting another face of what preservation might mean in modern Beijing.